How to Build a Healthy Plate

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Use this simple hack to build a healthy plate at every meal, that will fill you up and provide ample nutrients.

My Ideal Plate Ratio

When I was growing up, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Pyramid instructed me to eat 5-11 servings of “bread, cereal, rice, and pasta.” So, I happily obliged. 

In hindsight, it’s easy to see how flawed that recommendation was. Even though the Food Pyramid has since been replaced with MyPlate, the recommendations are still influenced by economics rather than strictly science. (If you’re interested in learning more about food politics, I highly recommend  the book Food Politics by Dr. Marion Nestle). 

Due to the inadequacies in the federal guideline, nutrition experts at Harvard School of Public Health created their own version of a healthy eating plate, called the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate, specifically designed to address deficiencies in MyPlate. 

However, I felt that it too, could be improved upon, so I created my own Ideal Plate Ratio. The main differences are that grains are not included as a necessary food group (although I’m not saying you can never have them, I just don’t think they are necessary. If you do, I recommend only whole grain and gluten-free). Dairy is excluded completely, and I would never recommend canola or corn oil (which are typically GMO and chemically extracted) or other vegetable oils.  

Here is what it looks like:

How to Use Maria’s Ideal Plate Ratio

Whether at home or at a restaurant, aim to fill your plate according to this ratio. You don’t have to weigh or measure foods, just stick to these ratios. At lunch and dinner, you’ll typically use vegetables for your 50%, while at breakfast, you could use fruit, vegetables, or a combo of both. (If you don’t eat fruit at breakfast, you could have it as a midday snack.) 

Ideal Plate Ratio Components

Veggies 

  • Vegetables have built in portion control. Because they are loaded with water and fiber, you’ll stop when you’ve had enough. 
  • You don’t have to weigh or measure out your veggies, simply eyeball that they take up at least half of your plate. If you want to get technical about it, this amounts to about 2-4 fist-sized servings or cups of veggies per meal.
  • These can be cooked or raw.
  • The color of vegetables is an indicator of what nutrients it contains, so aim to eat a variety of colors daily. 
  • Eat your veggies first. This aids in digestion and helps keep blood sugar balanced. 
  • Veggies should ideally be organic whenever possible, (but conventional is OK, too.) At least choose organic for any foods on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen Plus” list.

Fruit

  • Fruit is an excellent source of nutrients, fiber, and water.
  • Have one-three fist-sized servings of fruit a day as a snack, or part of your breakfast meal,  either instead of vegetables or with vegetables.

Healthy Fats

  • Healthy fats help keep you satiated, allow you to absorb certain vitamins, and play an important role in our health, especially cardiovascular and hormonal health. So, don’t be scared of fat, just choose the healthy kinds. 
  • Examples include:
    • Extra virgin or virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, unrefined avocado oil
    • Organic, pasture-fed ghee
    • Avocado
    • Nuts and seeds
    • Full fat coconut milk or coconut butter 

Greens, Beans, or Veggies

This section is a wild card. You can fill it either with dark leafy greens, beans, or veggies. Once in a while, if you want grains, you could use them here, too. If so, choose gluten-free grains and stick to about 1/4-1/2 cup serving. 

Dark Leafy Greens

  • Dark Leafy Greens are vegetables, but a separate category was created for them to ensure you’re getting them daily. In general, the darker the green, the more antioxidants it contains. 
  • Greens can be cooked or raw.   
  • You can use additional greens to fill the veggie part of your plate. (Meaning, a larger serving  of greens is always a good idea). 
  • Examples: arugula, collard greens, escarole, kale, spinach, Swiss chard, watercress, etc. 

Beans

  • If you’re eating an animal product as your main protein, you can swap greens for  1/2 cup of beans or lentils.

Veggies

  • If there are no dark leafy greens in sight, that’s ok, you can swap in other veggies. 

Protein

This part of your plate can be filled with animal or plant protein. Aim to have animal protein at no more than 1 meal a day. Supplement the rest with plant protein. Consume red meat sparingly, if at  all.

Animal Protein

  • When it comes to animal protein, quality is important. Always choose organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, or free range. For seafood, choose wild. 
  • A serving size is 3-4 oz. (about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of a (small) hand).
  • Examples: seafood, eggs, beef, chicken, turkey, etc. 

Plant Protein

  • A serving of plant protein is 1 cup, so don’t skimp on your beans and lentils.
  • Examples: beans, peas, quinoa, lentils, organic tempeh (fermented soy). 

Beverages 

  • Water is the best beverage to quench your thirst. With the increase in vegetable intake, it’s imperative that you drink adequate water to help the fiber do its job of keeping the pipes clean.  Aim for about 2.2-2.5 liters a day.

Where to Learn More

My mission is to make healthy eating and living as easy, fun, and practical as possible. If you’d like to learn more on this topic, I cover the ideal plate ratio, and so much more in my EatSLIM course.

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